'SETI' Site Up Again And Searching For Intelligent Life

This week, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute is re-launching its website and allowing anyone to join in the quest for intelligent life on other planets. Audie Cornish talks to Jill Tarter, director of the Institute's Center for SETI Research, about the site, the search and how it will all work.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The search for intelligent life in the universe has long been the realm of hard science. It requires massive million-dollar telescopes, advanced degrees and the ability to use really complicated words.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CONTACT")

JODIE FOSTER: (as Eleanor Arroway) Talk to me, guys.

GEOFFREY BLAKE: (as Fisher) Partially polarized set of moving pulses, amplitude modulated.

MAX MARTINI: (as Willie) We're locked. Systems check out, signal across the board. What's the frequency?

FOSTER: (as Eleanor Arroway) 4.46, 23 gigahertz. Hydrogen times pi, told you.

BLAKE: (as Fisher) Strong sucker, too.

MARTINI: (as Willie) I got it. I got it. I got it. I'm patched in.

FOSTER: (as Eleanor Arroway) All right, let me hear it.

CORNISH: That's from the 1997 film "Contact," starring Jodie Foster, based on the book by Carl Sagan. Until now, most of those wanting to join in the hunt for life out there who didn't have a Ph.D. were left to toil alone in their basements, fussing over ham radios and poring over grainy photos of possible UFOs. Well, citizen scientists, you just got promoted. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute, also known as SETI, is relaunching its website, so that anyone can scour the data coming from outer space and help look for signs of life.

I'm joined by Dr. Jill Tarter, an astrophysicist and director of the Center for SETI Research. Dr. Tarter, welcome to the program.

DR. JILL TARTER: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: First, start by telling us how this new website would actually work.

TARTER: Well, people will actually be able to look at raw, real, live data coming from the telescope. I don't think it will be quite as exciting as the clip that you just played, but in fact, people will see signals. They will actually be able to tell us about them, describe them. And if we decide that these are signals that we haven't seen before, then we'll follow up on them in real time, and people will be able to participate in that follow-up as well.

CORNISH: And, of course, this is going to give people access to information from, I believe, the Allen Telescope Array. Can you tell us a little bit about this? Is these radio signals or light signals? What exactly will these citizen scientists be looking for?

TARTER: Well, in the SETI Live application, it is radio signals that are being detected by the Allen Telescope Array, and our equipment actually is looking at a vast amount of data. And only a tiny little bit of it will actually be sent out to the citizen scientists - the parts of the spectrum where there are so many signals that it literally confuses our search system. So we want people to help us describe them, classify them and keep track of whether we've seen them before.

CORNISH: Now, Dr. Tarter, over the years, have you felt any sort of shift in how the public perceives this mission of looking for signals beyond Earth? And do you think it's changed in terms of there are people out there who have criticized in? It's been the subject of ridicule at times. And will this project make a difference?

TARTER: Well, it certainly is something that people have ridiculed in the past, but actually, the thing that's changing right now and it's a huge paradigm shift is exoplanets. So we now know about thousands of other planetary systems out there. I actually know where there are planetary systems, and that's where we're pointing the telescope.

CORNISH: Is there any time when you have doubts and that you question your mission?

TARTER: Well, I always have questions, and I don't know the answer. But I'm fundamentally convinced that this is as legitimate a question as how did galaxies form and how old is the cosmos. And I just am totally thrilled by the fact that I happen to be alive in the first generation among thousands of generations, which have asked this question. And suddenly, we have the tools of the astronomer to try and answer the question by doing experiments rather than asking the priests and the philosophers what we should believe.

CORNISH: Well, Dr. Jill Tarter, thank you so much for talking with us.

TARTER: You're very welcome, Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Dr. Jill Tarter, astrophysicist and director of the Center for SETI Research, talking with us about the group's website, SETI Live. That's S-E-T-I-Live.org. The site relaunches tomorrow, and it will allow citizen scientists to help sift through mountains of data in the search for intelligent life. Dr. tarter spoke with us from the annual TED Conference in Long Beach, California. It's a gathering of big thinkers from the worlds of technology, entertainment and design.

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